The first reaction I get from most traditional triathletes when I talk about this is that it can’t really be done. They list all the reasons it can’t be done such as recovery time, reduced endurance performance, reduced training effectiveness, different nutritional needs…blah blah blah.
Now, not to say that these aren’t valid points, because they are. But I believe that it can be done, and I am showing proof of that. Is it easy? No, it isn’t. The entire conventional way of training must be rethought. Nutritional needs must be tailored specifically to meet the different requirements of hard-core endurance training and more finite strength building.
My 2016 goals specifically included getting stronger, complete overall body strength, so I could be a better triathlete in 2017. Approaching the ripe old age of 47, I knew I needed to learn from my 2015 race year and make changes to improve on my specific weaknesses. Now when I say weaknesses, I don’t mean strength weakness, I mean athlete deficiencies, things I needed to improve upon to be a better athlete and handle the longer endurance needs of Ironman distance races. And most importantly, to be able to handle the three very different muscular disciplines that the race requires.
Swimming involves the whole body, head to toe. This is the shortest part of the race but is arguably the most intimidating and dangerous in my opinion. You use upper body, core and legs to their maximum and if they are not conditioned properly it makes for a very long swim.
Cycling is primarily a lower body discipline, but a poorly developed core can really cause you to get uncomfortable quickly. And depending on the bike you ride emphasis can be heavily placed on your shoulders and upper back to support you. A strong core goes a long way to balance that load.
Running is running. This part of the race is dependent on how you have fueled and conserved energy form the swim and bike. I found I never struggled cardiovascular-wise but leg endurance faded as did overall running form (I tend to hunch and shrug my shoulders when I get tired running.)
Now one of the things I do find by combining all these two disciplines is my calves really respond to my cycling and running, and not always in a positive way. That “pump” from a good workout tends to stay with me longer which can be uncomfortable at times. It does subside but it takes longer than that “tight” feeling we have coming off the bike. My solution to minimize that is proper nutrition, sodium, and I eliminate all calf work in the gym during race season.
So, how do we balance it all. Alex Viada at Complete Human Performance has the true template for making this work and I seriously encourage anyone thinking of combining these sport disciplines to read his stuff and visit CHP website. Invaluable info there. For me it was all about setting goals. What did I want to achieve? Leanness? Muscularity? Endurance? New PR’s? Well, to be honest, all of it.
I balance a very specific strength routine consisting of big movements, bench press, squats, and deadlifts. Running and cycling supplement my leg workouts and swimming aids in the upper body strength. I do consider the weight I lift in accordance to my training on specific weeks. De-loading the weight during training is important, albeit, difficult to do sometimes. I did learn no heavy squats the day before long runs or rides.
The key to all of it, again in my opinion, is rest. Even though I train 6 days a week most of the time, I make sure I capitalize on my rest and sleep. The body needs it, particularly when we push our bodies so hard. Second is nutrition. Getting the calories and the proper mix of nutrients specific for the type of workouts I am doing is very important. I’ll admit, I am carb adverse, meaning I like to really minimize my intake. Yes, yes, I know its contrary to any endurance athlete thinking. I make sure I get the carbs I need from the healthiest sources possible. I still stick to a heavily protein balanced diet with good fats. I train with Hammer Nutrition products and really enjoy those. Hammer Gels are the only gels that don’t make me puke.
The one thing my coach, Jennifer Harrison, taught me was that dieting during training wasn’t necessary. Leanness will come with proper training and nutrition. You must fuel the body and not be afraid of the calories. Dieting is an off-season project. So, I fuel appropriately, which means enough protein, to build and maintain muscle from my strength workouts and recover from all my training, and enough carbohydrates to help fuel the endurance work. We have about 90 minutes of glycogen stores available to us for our workouts after that we run up against the dreaded bonk. Fuel properly for these workouts is essential. I am not going to outline a recipe for fueling because it varies for everyone and the only way to dial it in is to practice in training. I hydrate every 5-10 minutes depending on weather, take in salt tabs once and hour unless its super-hot then I adjust. On the bike my liquids are a carb/protein mix to help me eliminate solid foods on the bike, not completely but some. My runs are similar. Carb/protein mix liquids and then supplementing with the course liquids and foods.
The one big sacrifice I made during this hybrid experiment is I am slower on the run. I have faith my times will come back as I continue to improve my process and dial in the training but as of right now, I am a slower runner. My bike times have improved and my swim times, well let’s just say I am not drowning.
The bottom line is this. Our bodies are amazing things. We can push them very, very hard and get awesome results and they will respond in kind. I love taking my physical self and pushing it beyond the limits of conventional thinking, and past the limits of the naysayers. I know that the clear majority of traditional triathletes will shake their heads at me. They all agree that strength plays a part but most are unwilling to aggressively combine them. I have a comfortable compromise with my coach. She lets me do my strength training routines trusting I keep in concert with not compromising my other training. I incorporate less weight, more bodyweight activities and eliminate max efforts during the season.
If you want a challenge, I encourage you to think about adding more strength training to your routine. I believe we will start to see more and more hybrid athletes emerge in the coming future. Strength training can improve quality of life, reduce the risk for injury and overall create a healthier lifestyle.
Train hard, train smart!
Previously Fat Guy